New Year’s Resolution: “Love Thy Neighbor”

New Year’s Resolution 2014: “Love Thy Neighbor”

By Myriam J. A. Chancy

 

“If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.” ― Angela Y. Davis

I was born in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, in 1970, a Haitian citizen. I was eventually naturalized as Canadian and have lived, for the last 24 years of my life in the United States, as a “migrant” worker in a white-collar professional occupation.  I will never again know what it is to be a citizen of the country of my birth.  I will never have to know the loss of that citizenship because some governing body of that country will have decided that I am “undesirable.”  Though I at times worry about my legal resident status in the US, I don’t worry about my rights as the citizen of a commonwealth country; indeed, that citizenship ensures my continued rights, even as a migrant.  By and large, such has not been the case for Haitians historically.

Migrants are by definition individuals who are compelled, by opportunity, need, or both, to seek their fortunes in an elsewhere than their place of birth.  They are distinguished from immigrants in that they either go back and forth between their place of birth or citizenship and the space in which they work as migrants.  Immigrants change their geographical location on a permanent basis; legal immigrants acquire a new citizenship; illegal immigrants are those who cannot obtain citizenship and also at the same time, cannot easily return “home.”

This New Year, over 200,000 Dominicans enter a New Year precariously, their nationality, that is, their citizenship, and its attendant rights, stripped by a ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of their country.  That ruling, handed down in the case of 29-year old Juliana Deguis (Pierre), a Dominican citizen of Haitian heritage, who defended her right to obtain her cédula, or government-issued ID card, after it was denied her by the Central Electoral Board in 2008, not only stripped Deguis of her citizenship but retroactively applied the ruling to all individuals of similar backgrounds, going back to 1929.  Thus, when headlines speak of the dispossession of the “children” of Haitian migrants, those “children” may be up to 84 years of age.  We are not, thus, speaking of children at all, but of descendants of Haitians who are, by birth, Dominican citizens.

In observing the unfolding events from afar (the ruling has surprisingly not been covered by any mainstream news agency in the United States), I have been struck by the variety of ways that language has done us a disservice in explicating the gravity of the situation. Some reports have placed the accent on the fact that the ruling appears to designate all progeny of undocumented/”in transit” people, of various nationalities, when it is clear that the targeted population are primarily of Haitian descent.  As the Dominican government touts its project of “naturalization” for those affected, eligibility criteria is, at best, murky.[1] It isn’t just a question of whether or not a Dominican citizen is an offspring of undocumented or “in transit” Haitian laborers (“in transit” meaning that they may have legal working papers but not legal residency), it is also a question of whether or not the individual is seen as a desirable a citizen of the State.  The hallmark of desirability is thus to be measured in terms of middle-class status via education and occupation.  The working poor need not apply.

More obscure has been the link between the denationalized population and the claims of the Dominican government that this is an immigration issue.  The ruling’s retroactive application makes clear that this is not the case. In any country of the Americas, a vast majority of us would be bound to find, going back four generations, immigrant parents or grandparents, who may not have had proper documentation when they arrived in a foreign country or who arrived in that foreign country prior to its institution of particular immigration rules.  Four generations cuts across a wide swath of time.

When I returned to Haiti this past November, I was surprised that there was not more talk about the ruling on the other side of the border. “It’s because of the eggs,” some told me.  “What eggs?” I asked.  “Egg production,” I was told. “Martelly announced that Haiti would produce its own eggs for domestic production in August and we were slammed with this in September.”

Currently, bilateral trade between the two nations is extremely skewed.  Economist Paul Latortue, based in Puerto Rico, reports an increasing income gap from 1960 to the present between Haitians and Dominicans and that in 2010 only, the DR sold 250 times what it purchased from Haiti. In that same year, Haiti sold USD 60 million worth of products but imported USD 1.5 billion.[2]  Its cheap, migrant labor force aside, then, the DR has a lucrative trade with Haiti that depends upon Haiti’s inability to rise as a competitor in local and global trade.  This is all to say that if the Dominican Republic has not engaged in regulation of immigration from Haiti prior to this time, short of massacres, it has been more than willing to extract labor from Haitians and to pay a pittance for it.  The current ruling does not seek to regulate immigration, it strips Dominican citizens who are not Haitian, but happen to be of Haitian descent, of their rights by birth.  It violates every known convention of international law by which world citizens are assured of their rights as citizens in one or more countries, and are protected from retroactive rulings that would attempt to legislate the ethnic or religious composition of any given nation.  If it stands, it also gives free reign to any country in the region to suspend the rights of some sector of its citizens on specious grounds.

Additionally, in a recent piece for The Nation, journalist Todd Miller reports on the curious appearance of US border patrol agents in the DR as part of its “Global War on Terror.”[3] Miller concludes that the concerted effort to control the movement of Haitians is a “manifestation of a new vision of global geopolitics in which human beings in need are to be corralled, their free movement criminalized, and their labor exploited.”  But this still does not explain the ruling of Sept. 2013, nor the United States’ studied lack of response, or does it?  Think about it.  If the currently 200,000+ denationalized Dominicans become non-citizens of their own country (tantamount to IDPs or “internally-displaced-people” of the post-earthquake camps in its neighbor), what are they good for?  Simply put: cheap labor for the hemisphere.  If Haiti cannot produce its own basic staples nor participate in regional trade, who do they buy from? The DR.  Who produces those staples for Haiti and the region? The DR, with the assistance of a vast labor force derived from the lowest economic strata of the population within its borders.  Non-coincidently, the US-designed plan for Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction is not education of its masses but factory upon factory fed by decentralized IDP dwellers into areas that will service those factories with their labor.  If Dominicans with Haitian forbearers some generations removed who originally came to the DR clandestinely, now have degrees, professions, children to put through school, that is to say that they have and are achieving parity with Dominicans of other ethnicities, stripping them of their generational advances makes invisible contributions by Haitians to the success of the Dominican state (and thus within the region).  At the same time, their ability to actively take part in the political apparatus (and upcoming 2016 elections), to have political power, is curtailed, negated, erased.[4]

There is, of course, history behind this.  By the early 1900s, many Dominican cane plantations were owned by U.S. sugar companies; these started “importing” Haitian labor as early as 1916-1924 during the Occupation of both sides of the island.  Most Haitian migrants were going to Cuba during this period, from 1912-1930, and then started re-orienting to the DR when Cuba stopped admitting immigrant laborers in 1930 (both of Jamaican and Haitian extraction).  In 1933, Trujillo passed a law requiring that 70% of cane field workers be Dominicans; coincidentally, when Trujillo massacred 40,000 Haitians (and dark Dominicans) from the border zones in 1937, Cuba expulsed 25,000 Haitian migrants who dispersed to neighboring nations.  Like the DR today, Cuba did not deport immigrant workers with significant economic resources.  It would not be until 1959, and the rise of the Castro Revolution, that the Haitian would become an ennobled figure in Cuba, while at the same time, the dictator, François Duvalier, came to an agreement with the Dominican Republic by which the Haitian state was paid a fee for every Haitian cane cutter supplied to the Dominican Republic (while the laborers themselves received slave wages).

The only reason Dominicans of Haitian descent are being targeted by the ruling of this past September is because their ancestors once belonged to a colony that forcibly removed from its neck the chains of slavery, a struggle from which the Dominican Republic, founded in 1844, benefited from in more ways than one.[5]

The ruling that so many human rights groups such as Amnesty International, UNCHR, the Inter-American Commission for Human rights, along with regional heads of states, including the member states of CARICOM, the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, and of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, among others, have found to be an aberration, is an attack not only on the sovereignty of the Haitian state and its fragile means of economic survival but on the sovereignty of all citizens of countries in the Americas.  It is also an attack on the dignity and rights of a relatively small group within its borders, while holding them hostage for slave labor.  Less than an 8th of the overall population of the Dominican Republic, this racialized ethnic group has intentionally been singled out by the State apparatus to deprive them of their civic rights and of their personal agency.

As co-inhabitants of this hemisphere, we have to recognize the situation for what it is.  We have to acknowledge that the historical back and forth between the porous border of these two nations makes it impossible to retroactively apply “immigration” statutes; that porousness also reveals that Haitians and Dominicans, like it or not, are an historically entwined people who share a small piece of land.  Furthermore, we must advocate with and on behalf of dispossessed Dominicans not because they are “immigrants” (which they aren’t), or because, as black people “they have rights, too” (Dominicans of non-Haitian descent are also of African descent), but because they are citizens of their own country, a country that has long roots in the history of slavery just as it has colonial roots in Spain as Haiti does in France.  To pretend otherwise is to make a fool of history, and of ourselves.

 

(Re-Blogged in the HaitianTimes.com, January 2014; Spanish version re-blogged in the Dominican Republic @Acento.com, January 5/2014; link:

http://acento.com.do/2014/actualidad/1153626-dominicanos-desposeidos-buenos-para-la-explotacion-pero-no-para-la-ciudadania/ )

 


[1] See Edwidge Danticat: Haitian ‘Dreamers’ in Dominican Republic shut out of citizenship,” http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/12/14/3816925/edwidge-danticat-haitiandreamers.html#storylink=cpyhttp://www.miamiherald.com/2013/12/14/3816925/edwidge-danticat-haitian-dreamers.html#storylink=cpy [Accessed December 31, 2013].

[2] Latortue, Paul. “Unbalanced development and trade in Hispaniola.”  Paper presented at the University of West Indies in Mona, Jamaica at the conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of CARICOM held at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute if Social and Economic Studies (SALISES). October 7–10, 2013.

 [3] Miller, Todd. “Wait- What are US Border Patrol Agents Doing in the Dominican Republic?” The Nation. November 19, 2013.

[4] See Danticat’s piece but also Roger F. Noriega’s, “Democracy at risk for all Dominicans,” Miami Herald. December 26, 2013.  Accessed same day.

[5] See my Sugar from Revolution for an extensive exploration of this phenomenon, related to economics, social and cultural progress in the hemisphere as a result of not engaging in full-scale separation from European colonial domination.

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